Thursday, February 17, 2011

ch. 6: mike's junkyard

There's a tension in the car now, as we snake through East St. Louis toward the junkyard; we've agreed to do my errand first, since it involves signing off on some legal papers that will affirm that I know it was my car; I recognize that it's totally demolished; I hand over all rights to junk it; I've gotten everything I need, etc. The wedding invitation is, of course, on my mind. But the tension? I'm wondering, how could he do it? A recognizable brand-name car, unique, unique tags, plain sight, plain daylight, and he causes a wreck that could have killed people. he did it without thinking, he says. the cell phone seemed dangerous, dark, murky. He didn't want it in his car.

The junkyard dealer lets us in and leads us to the Mazda directly; it is in fact entirely demolished, and I can see that there would be no point in trying to rebuild even part of it, though some parts of it might be salvageable by someone, someone who knew how to do such a thing. And sure enough, it's been pretty much untouched; nobody could imagine that an old wedding invitation on the front seat could be of value, and I find it; it's buried, now, under shards of glass and pieces of broken air-bag and car detritus. I tuck it away in my pocket and try to imagine if there's anything else that could still be of value; there isn't. I sign their documents. They can melt it down for steel. I turn over the title. The junkyard dealer, a large black guy named Mike, is satisfied; he didn't want to sit on this car for weeks, unable to get anything out of it. It seems to him he should get something for just holding it, but he's satisfied to now have the right to at least get a few scraps, and some money for melted-down metal. He walks back to his little office, and we're left to go back to the Volvo and on to the next errand, at the casino.

But this is when we are approached by Wilson Hall himself. He is unmistakable, his curly hair, large blue eyes, a pure youthful vibrancy in spite of any trouble he may be in. I recall quickly what I know, or at least what I believe; his partner has been killed; he is being called by a ruthless woman who wants him to lay off of someone by the name of Ben Salem; he now has no law firm, no car, no cell phone, no apparent ability to do his job; he has just managed to live through a life-threatening accident and coma, but somehow recovered and appears now to be in pretty good health, in spite of everything. And, he recognizes me. He shakes my hand and thanks me again for apparently saving his life, and getting him to the hospital, several nights ago. He's noticed the condition of my car; he says the Cadillac they were driving was also demolished and brought to this same place.

I look briefly over to the office of Mike the junkyard operator, but he has disappeared; the conversation is taking place just outside his fence, so he doesn't feel inclined, maybe, to get involved. He doesn't mind if we stand here all day. Brownstreet studies Hall intently. The morning sun is coming to the top of the sky; it's almost noon. Hall offers to take us to lunch; it's the least he can do; I saved his life; please let him; we accept. He fits into the back of the Volvo among jackets, bags of clothes, old magazines, and an occasional soda can; the guitar is back there too, and parts of it are very tightly packed, but the part where he's sitting is best described as a compost heap. It's not a problem. We're off to a local place in East St. Louis, about a mile from the junkyard.

"I'm sorry about your partner, Williams. Were you close?" I ask.

"Been with him about a year. His funeral is Friday, in Chicago, but it I'm not sure I'll make it. Yeah, I'm still a little upset about that too."

"It was attempted murder, you're pretty sure? You know who did it?"

"I'd never seen these people in my life. They came up behind us on the Poplar Street Bridge and started trying to run us off the road. They almost did, twice. I rolled my window down because it seemed like I'd have to jump. When I saw your car in the way, I knew I'd have to jump and I did. It was that simple. I don't know who they were or why they wanted to kill us. I assume it had to do with Ben Salem."

"Oh by the way we've been hearing from Ben Salem."

"You know who Ben Salem is?"

"Well, not exactly." I told the tale of the cell-phone, somewhat reluctantly. It got bogged down in the part about smashing the truck windshield on the interstate, practically causing a pile-up, at the very least considerable tumult and police activity, all this morning, all probably directing at least some people to be looking for a Volvo with New Hampshire tags. Hall looked at us quizzically; our story was beginning to match his for pure unbelievability. The question centered, really, on whether a phone could survive smashing through a windshield; could, say, a person still make an incoming call such as the ones we'd received?"

Brownstreet recalled the one he'd received, partly to defend himself from the absurdity of what he'd done, throwing the phone up through the sunroof and into the windshield of a tailgating semi. He practically shivered as he retold the story of being threatened life and limb by an evil woman.

"I've actually met that woman," Hall says; "she's already told me not to mess with Ben Salem. Ben Salem is a nickname for this guy that runs an asbestos empire. He actually cleans asbestos, but he finds it everywhere, and since nobody really knows what it looks like, he makes a lot of money pretending to remove it. Or his goons do. But in the process, a lot of people get hurt. If it's really asbestos, and workers are getting injured in the process of removing it, and he knows this, and he's not doing anything, he's guilty and he knows it. But if it's not asbestos, then he's a fraud that way too, and a lot of other people are going to be mad, and, how is he going to explain the people that have gotten hurt removing it?"

"So what's your role in this?"

"Well, my partner used to say: if you've secretly stolen a million, we can get a few hundred thou just by knowing your secret; that's our racket. But if you've secretly stolen a billion, we could probably get a few hundred million, but now our lives are worth a little less than what we could be making..."

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